Food & Drink

Pickin' Peas

Pickin' Peas


The day sweltered like only a day in Mississippi can. There was not a single whistle of wind. I felt like Spanish moss drooping over the branches of live oak trees, unable to move. I dragged my feet across the open parking lot to the farmers' market, feeling my skin sizzle with each step.In the shade of the Ocean Springs-Biloxi overpass, a woman sat on an overturned orange paint pail, protected from the sun's rays burning between her tight cornrows. Her shoulders hunched forward, and her elbows rested on her knees. Her fingers were thick and cracked with years of hard work, yet nimble as she used her thumbs to split apart dark purple bean pods. She ran her index finger down the pocket, extracting the green-tinged beans. The same deep purple color marked the center of the bean surrounded by a pink oblong splotch.

"Are these black-eyed peas?" I asked. The woman sucked the scorched air between her teeth and let out a laugh that filled the parking lot. Her dark eyes glistened. "No, child. Thems have black eyes." She ran her hands through the plastic bowl between her knees and scooped up a handful of peas. "These here have pink eyes." She pointed to the center of one. "Theys called purple-hull pink-eye peas."

Sometimes, I can be so dumb. "These here." The woman pointed to an almost identical pile of beans. "Theys called crowders. And over here, another pile lay on the far end of the table, these are small lady peas."

"Which one is your favorite?" This was a variation of the question I asked everyone at every market around the world. "How would you cook these for your family?"

The woman turned teacher in an instant as she demonstrated zippering the beans and shelling the peas from the center. "You take these and boil thems with bacon and some seasoning. These here crowders make lots a gravy to mop up with cornbread."

I lowered my eyes. "My cornbread recipe is not so good." The woman looked like I just used the Lord's name in vain. "Girl, you gets some of that self-raising flour and fresh ground corn." She slapped her thigh and her whole bosom jiggled. "My secret is you mix in a spoon of mayonnaise to make it moist." She kept shelling peas the whole time we spoke. You do that, and you'll have good cornbread. She scooped and bagged the crowders and moved over to her original bowl of pink eyes.

"Now, these here are better for salad." She reached over the table for a field-ripened bright red tomato. "Boil them and mix them with tomato, peppers, some chilies, and corn." She picked up two thin cobs, the silk still woven through the kernels, and placed them on my growing pile of vegetables from her farm. "These are the last of the Silver Queens for the season."

As the woman slipped the pro- duce into my cloth bag, I couldn't help but feel I was living in a scene straight from the pages of Kathryn Stockett's The Help. I was Skeeter, but I wasn't asking for advice on cleaning but rather how to cook Southern dishes. Or, maybe, I was Miss Celia, leaning over Minny, learning how to fry chicken.

"You come back next week and I'll bring you some of my cornbread to try." I stepped out of the refuge and into the blazing sun, hardly registering the rise in temperature since we had begun talking. I practically skipped to my car, arms laden with bags of Mississippi-grown produce and recipes for the next day's lunch, eager to return on Tuesday for my next cooking lesson.


  • 2 pounds pink-eyed purple hull peas, shucked OR 2 15-oz. cans black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 2 ears corn, shucked
  • 2 large tomatoes, seeded and diced 1/2 redonion,diced
  • 1/2 green pepper,diced
  • 1/2 yellow pepper,diced
  • 1/2 orange bell pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and
  • finely chopped
  • 2 limes, juiced
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt


  • In a large pot, boil 2 gallons of water with the shucked peas and 1 tablespoon sea salt for 20 minutes until tender. Drain.
  • Boil 2 gallons water and sea salt. Boil ears of corn for 3 minutes. Remove from water and cool. Slice the kernels off the cob  and mix all the ingredients together until well combined.
  • Serve with tortilla chips for dipping or as a salad.  (Makes 8 cups)

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